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Our interviewee of the week is Ajibola Olanrewaju popularly known as “Papa”. He shot into Nigeria chess limelight with his positional play at National Sports Festival, Imo 98 where he assisted his team to a gold medal winning performance. Subsequently, he has been on the national Olympiad team and All Africa Games national chess team. He is a winner of several tournaments in Nigeria during the course of his playing career that has spanned over two decades. Perhaps, his outstanding achievement in chess is his chess in school organization, Pedachess, that is probably the biggest chess in schools organization in Africa.
We sat down to lunch with him and talked for over two hours. We bring you the transcript in a three parts publishing.
TO: Can a Nigerian currently, as in current dispensation of Nigeria, can a Nigerian use being a professional player as a platform for financial success? How is it possible?
AO: Yes, but again it’s also difficult to be honest but yes, you are probably saying that guy must keep on winning all the tournaments that he goes for. You can’t win one and lose the next six
TO: So, you have to be a great player?
AO: Yes, a great player
TO: Not just an…
AO: No, not just an…, they have to be …
TO: If you want to use professional chess to be financial successful, you can’t be just a chess player?
AO: Except you are combining instructing and playing
TO: The musicians don’t make money from selling music, they make money from being popular. They create a brand through music
AO: Well, chess is not as accepted as music is in Nigeria
TO: You know musicians used to make money from selling records before but now that records are digital, they don’t make money because of piracy, not just piracy but because of online sharing. They can’t sell records again so you just get a brand and you call people for shows or you endorse a product or you use your name to sell other products. Do you have any ideas for chess players?
AO: No, you agree that chess is not that popular
TO: But Kasparov uses his name to do other things outside chess. He is not just doing, Kasparov is not just doing chess business
AO: Yes because, the honest truth is that Kasparov is very wealthy
TO: He’s also, he also uses his name. Anand is as popular as Kasparov but he is not using his name, not necessarily as popular as Kasparov but in India he is as popular as Kasparov but he is not using his name
AO: Kasparov has political…
TO: Yes, he uses his chess name
AO: Yes, but even before he started getting this popular he tried to become… what’s this, putting in each and everything
TO: No, he has been popular ever since
AO: Yes, but now he is becoming well known in Africa and
TO: Because of his business
AO: Yes, because of his business
TO: No, what I’m asking is this, can you say that what I will be doing is chess then I will use chess as a foundation. How can you use chess as a foundation for making money? How? How can you use playing chess, a lot of people like to play chess. Then if you play chess, winning tournaments can’t make you money. You can’t make money from winning tournaments and if you want to be a musician, you can’t make money from selling records
AO: No, you have to make a name for yourself
TO: Yes, as a player
AO: As a player and that’s what Kasparov did.
TO: Yes, he was world champion
AO: He made a name. he was arguably the strongest world champion but you know he made a name for himself so likewise a Nigerian player, how many people can make a name for themselves? Eugene did once, won much, but now he’s gone into … people are not hearing his name. Then someone has to have an interest somewhere in a person. You know
TO: I think Nigerian chess players should look for opportunities not just on the chess board. They should, after they’ve made a name they should know how to convert it
AO: It is difficult, Fawole tried
TO: Yeah, he’s trying right now but his name in chess is not coming out again
AO: Yes he tried but
TO: He’s not making the name in chess again
AO: No, it’s that difficult
TO: So how did you become a chess coach?
AO: I think that one is just, that one is just natural. I like teaching, so I know how to teach. When I learnt chess, I started teaching it. I was teaching Maths so I introduced the children to chess also
TO: You were teaching maths in
AO: Regal College, Shagamu
TO: And you introduced the children to chess
AO: Yes, some of them to help them academically
TO: Okay, when did you decide you will stop teaching, you will focus fully on chess with the children?
AO: No I left because a teacher told me then that I should try and go and marry the principals daughter to see if they will allow me. So when they told me, I knew I had no future in teaching, I won’t be able to make ends meet so I left teaching of maths and physics but at least I got an award there too for maths. A national award but aside that I just left. So I came to Lagos with chess, Chrisland employed me as the chess coach.
TO: You came to Lagos with chess, so you weren’t teaching maths in Lagos?
AO: No, I wasn’t teaching maths in Lagos. I just came to Lagos and Chrisland needed a chess coach
TO: Chess brought you to lagos? So how did chess bring you to Lagos?
AO: Mr. Idada called me
TO: That Chrisland needed a coach?
AO: Yes, that Chrisland needed a chess coach and I went there and applied and they wanted me to start and from there I also had the idea of the chess in schools
TO: When was this?
AO: This was 2001, 2002. I had the idea of chess in school, so I introduced that as well so they told me to start but that was different from chess coaching.
TO: Oh, you introduced the current program you are running?
TO: Into Chrisland immediately? Or you were initially…?
AO: I was already coaching
TO: The chess in school program you run is an innovation or you copied it?
AO: No it’s an innovation
TO: Did you introduce it immediately or you were using the old format?
AO: See I was taking Chrisland college as a chess coach
O: Like other people were taking basketball coach, football coach
AO: Yes, and that was in the evening but they have primary schools so I went to meet the then executive director now MD and I told her that I wanted to introduce chess and maths
TO: That’s the innovation?
AO: Yes, then I thought I was the only one thinking out of the box but the day I now put chess and maths on Google I found out that I was like 50 years behind
TO: It’s always like that with everything
AO: Yes, you think, I thought I was the only one
TO: Everybody thinks like that, an idea will just pops to you and you will just think this is a good idea
AO: Yeah, like nobody has ever thought of it until I searched on Google I found out that 50 years. So they adopted it in one of their primary schools and that’s where we started the chess program though that was during normal school period, regular class hours while the college was still in the afternoon
TO: Okay talking about this chess in school thing, your chess in school program is chess in the school curriculum
TO: It’s not chess club, you don’t do chess club
AO: No, we don’t
TO: You do chess in school curriculum. Is it not more challenging than doing the chess club?
AO: No, it’s not
TO: What I mean by its more challenging is getting the school to put chess in the school curriculum is more challenging
AO: Yeah, well its trying to make them see which program is better and which program will benefit their pupils better. If they know that this program will benefit my students better then they will go for it but if they are not sure it’s jamboree
TO: Many schools will claim they have too much programs, let me not say many schools all schools they’ll claim that they have so much programs to give to the children
AO: Because they don’t value what you are bringing. Once they see the value you are trying to bring then they will give tons for you. See I have seen so many schools out there that have told me they can’t make time on their time table but once they see the impact the chess program is making on the kids you know you just have to make them see it. You see gaming is a part of the schools’ curriculum and chess falls under gaming and it is approved by the educational board. So it comes under gaming, it’s part of it but you see the schools need to see that what you are bringing in will add value but most of us go because maybe our interest is just finance. You know when I started, or when we started the main purpose was to impact the kids and till now the main focus is to impact the kids and that’s why we are coming out with a lot of innovations that is making the work more tasking but is giving us more results like the work books, it makes it a lot of work for me to make all the ..
TO: So any one that wants to run a successful chess in school program should not focus on finance?
AO: No you don’t
TO: Don’t think of how much money you will make
AO: No, you see it is not a dash it is a gradual race. You see eventually the money will come and that is what people are missing then again you must add value for people, human that is your staff. I think that’s the key thing Pedachess has. We have excellent staffs, we are having additions but you see because I value them and I make them understand so they take the job as if it is theirs. So you know for me as we are growing I’m also trying to make sure that they are better off as people, their family is better off, their cares are taking care off so it’s not about…
TO: What makes a person a good coach, what are the qualities of a good coach?
TO: Okay, you’ve come across different types of coaching
TO: What makes one coach better than the other?
AO: Well I will talk on my own point of view, you see when I coach people initially I use to scream because I think very fast. I can say me I’m a little probably intelligent so when I’m explaining – so you know one of the benefits of chess is cognitive skills, the ability to learn things very fast – now when I explain I expect people to pick very fast. But when they are not getting it, I get irritated and I start screaming ‘can’t you understand this?’, cant you get this?, you know but over time I have started learning to be patient. You have to be patient with your students. Some of them might not start well
TO: So that’s the improvement in your own coaching?
AO: Yes, they might not start well but it doesn’t mean they won’t be the best. They might be very slow learners it doesn’t mean they won’t be the best
TO: Have you not had a bad coach before in your staff?
AO: Oh, you see when you say coach, you are taking me way from Pedachess
TO: Okay your coaching job is for
AO: Yeah, coaching job is strictly for chess, even Chrisland College is coaching but when you say chess instructor, in my mindset I’m thinking academics
TO: Oh academics, it’s just, it’s not coaching to play chess
AO: Not necessarily to play chess. It’s using chess to help them to think
TO: Okay, okay let’s talk about coaching because you have success as a coach. Tell us some of your, can you tell us your previous experience as a chess coach? Who have you coached and what level of success? Can you tell your experience as a chess coach?
AO: Okay well I think my best product has been Oneil Egwatu
TO: Who is that?
AO: A primary school student. He is in Loyola JS2 now. He won C4
TO: Oh C4
AO: Two years ago under 12 or under 14
TO: What about Lagos state female chess team? Are they not a good product?
AO: My best product, Oneil Egwatu because he won almost everything there was to win. He won everything there was, every tournament he went for he did extremely well. You know Pedachess tournament, external tournaments, he was fantastic. The female team, I had good students. I like Chika but she was a slow learner, she learns something and forgets. I had Biodun, Biodun was okay. Who else? Tumininu, Seun, I can’t remember more. Seun, I think amongst them Seun was the most impressive when it came to the tournament because she started playing really well. She held Hafsat to a draw and she had a lot of confidence in herself. You could see that there was confidence exuding from her when she was playing. But I didn’t have enough time with them that’s my challenge
TO: But they did well?
AO: Yes, they did well but I am never satisfied with silver
TO: Okay, but there was a gold too in the female side
AO: Yes one person got gold but I wanted a team gold. I am never satisfied with team silver
TO: Okay as a coach you prefer a team medal than individual medals
AO: Oh yes I will prefer a team gold than an individual gold. It still counts as gold anyway; I learnt that from coach Dipo. Coach Dipo when we went for Imo 98, he wanted a team gold and we got the team gold
TO: Okay, why do you prefer team to individual?
AO: Team, everybody, you know it’s a team
TO: Everybody is happy
AO: Yeah, everybody is happy; achieving something together that’s why I like Arsenal as a football club. You see people that are being rewarded for being loyal over time. They had 7, 8 years of not winning any trophy but people stayed
TO: But chess is an individual sport. It is not a team game.
AO: Well but we have team events
TO: You see yourself more as a team person
AO: We have team events. See the Amenian team, one flaw I find in the current Amenian team is Aronian. He is supposed to be the main man of that team, he is supposed to win difficult positions but Aronian is quick to take draws so at the last World Chess Olympiad, they were not the same Amenian team that people had known. Look at, they had won it twice because Aronian kept on fighting for the team, just one win and the others draw but Aronian on board one was quick to take draws
TO: No, but Aronian has lost confidence
AO: Well I don’t know
TO: In Pedachess you see yourselves as a coach too?
AO: We see ourselves as a team
TO: As a team
AO: A team of instructors
TO: So to be a good coach, you have to be patient?
TO: That’s the outstanding qualities of a good coach
AO: You have to be patient
TO: But that’s truly the outstanding qualities of a leader. When you are taking people along on a journey, you have to…
AO: Yeah, you have to be patient and of course with patience, there are other things, innovations, source for materials
TO: Hard work and sacrifice
AO: Yeah sacrifice, obviously sacrifice. Anything you want to do and excel you have to sacrifice
TO: As a coach for others
TO: The sacrifice of coaches and leaders is for others and not for yourself
AO: Not for yourself. You leave your comfort regions. Go the extra mile just to make…. For instance now coaching not instructing, I carry these big bags, two big bags that I go to the school with everyday, very heavy bags but what are in those bags? My student’s books and workbooks. I put everything there and I keep it and I make sure I carry all these books because I don’t want them to come the next day and tell me they left their notes in their hostel. I keep their notes, give it to them so they work on it again and I will collect it back. So you know there are sacrifices and…